It’s usually in the smaller moments that we really start to appreciate what a video game can achieve. Sure, many video games have huge setpieces that we can all applaud from a technical and narrative standpoint, but it’s those little watercooler-style events that make us truly understand how much time and effort has gone into a game’s creation.
It won’t surprise those of you who have been following the pre-release hype that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game full of those moments. Whether it’s watching the sun go down over the plains as you heft a bandit’s body onto your horse, or sitting around a campfire listening to members of the Dutch van der Linde gang tell bawdy jokes, Red Dead Redemption 2 absolutely nails its narrative and aesthetic during those quieter moments.
Of course, that’s not to say this isn’t a game that understands grandiose, too. Everything from the sweeping vistas the game treats you with to its juddering, high-octane train heists screams confidence and assuredness on the part of developer Rockstar Games. Murky stories of long working hours and unfavourable office conditions aside, Rockstar should absolutely be applauded for their achievement in creating Red Dead Redemption 2.
Let’s back up a little. Those of you who’ve played the first in the series will recognise where we are narratively with the sequel. Red Dead Redemption 2 follows the exploits of Arthur Morgan, a member of Dutch van der Linde’s outlaw posse. Morgan must aid van der Linde in “one last heist”, a huge score that will secure the gang’s future and make them all free people. In traditional Rockstar style, it’s quite a patchwork quilt of a plot; there’s more going on in the smaller moments and side stories than there is in the overarching narrative.
That’s not a criticism, though. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that absolutely excels at the smaller moments. The Dutch van der Linde posse is a living, breathing entity, entirely comprising believable human beings with clear motivations and personalities. Dialogue trees are a welcome, if slightly staid, addition to the game, as they allow players to craft Morgan’s personality and how the inhabitants of the various towns in the game react to him.
This is arguably the “most” Rockstar has offered to players in a single package. Morgan can hunt, fish, sell the spoils of those endeavours, engage in combat, duels, gain and lose weight, consume food...there is an absolute smorgasbord of content on offer to players who manage to get themselves lost in Morgan’s fading Wild West landscapes. Each of these activities is little more than a diversion on its own, but when put together, they create a compelling portrait of life in America that’s difficult to leave once you’re inside.
That’s also partly because of Rockstar’s excellent presentation work. Visually, the game is absolutely stunning; we’d strongly recommend you play this on the most powerful 4K TV you can get your hands on, because the vistas on offer are gorgeous, and you’ll find something new in each one every single time you play. The audio work is top-notch, too, with guns giving off a satisfying “crack” when they fire and horses’ hooves clopping elegantly against the worn dirt tracks of the game’s massive open world.
It’s no surprise that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a technical marvel, though; we’ve come to expect such excellent standards from Rockstar ever since Grand Theft Auto V raised the bar in terms of open-world design. What this game has, and Grand Theft Auto V arguably lacked, is a sense of humanity and emotional weight. Just like the first game, there are no heroes in the Wild West, and Morgan’s tale of...well...redemption carries the same punch and grit that Marston’s elegiac journey did in Red Dead Redemption.
If there is a criticism - and we’re really having to reach for one - it’s that Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. It’s not so much a bold step in a new direction as an assured stomp into an existing footprint; although there’s plenty here that’s new, none of it feels new. Everything that’s been added to the game feels like it was already present in the first title, and whether that’s a problem for you or not will depend on your penchant for innovation and how much of it you demand from your triple-A games.
In the end, though, it’s not difficult to thoroughly recommend Red Dead Redemption 2. Nobody does this kind of thing better than Rockstar, and nowhere is that more on show than in this game. Stories of embittered humans fighting against change go hand-in-hand with the kind of rootin’ tootin’ deconstructionist gameplay we’ve come to expect from this studio. This is an utter marvel, and although it’s not new, boy is it shiny.